The New England opium trade in the early 1800s produced considerable wealth for America. As it was never seen as a wholesome pursuit, however, those who prospered from it tended to downplay its significance — much the way many family histories marginalized slave trading.
And in truth America’s trade in opium was insignificant compared to Britain’s role in promoting opium. For centuries, opium – harvested from poppy plants – made its way around the globe as a fairly insignificant product.
Smoking opium took hold in China as a remedy for toothaches and other pains. But its addictive qualities quickly drove consumption for recreational uses. By the early 1700s, the damage done by opium addiction was readily apparent in China’s flop-houses and drug dens. As early as 1729 Chinese officials tried to enforce bans on the drug.
But Britain’s East India Company was becoming addicted to opium, too. Some historians argue that opium had replaced tea in importance to the East India Company because of its high profit margins. Demand was non-stop and competition was virtually non-existent. By 1793, Britain had a virtual monopoly in supplying Indian opium to China. Merchants used a precise system of harvesting, delivering and selling opium into the market.
But the politics of the drug remained complicated. By 1800 the Chinese government had outlawed opium yet again. Even in Britain it was viewed as unwholesome.
The New England Opium Trade
The East India Company, meanwhile, demanded Indian farmers sell their opium to the company, cutting out competition. The company would refine the opium and sell it to smugglers. The smugglers could deliver it freely to China’s markets rather than having to deal through China’s official Canton factory system. British ships themselves were strictly forbidden to carry opium into China.
This convoluted mechanism for selling opium left plenty of room for profit. That fact was not lost on New England merchants developing their own China trade.
The New England opium trade began as a necessary trade-balancing strategy. The Chinese had tea, porcelain and silk that Americans wanted. But America (as well as Britain) had far fewer goods that interested the Chinese.
China also demanded payment in silver. That demand burdened America and Britain, which had little access to silver. In looking for another commodity that could be traded with China, the British had identified opium as such a product. American traders decided to follow suit.
American vessels had been operating on the fringes of the opium trade prior to 1800, but in 1805 the trade blossomed. The Philadelphia firm Willings & Francis and James and Benjamin Wilcocks took the first leaps into opium. They sent ships to Turkey to purchase opium that the East India Company didn’t control for shipment to India.
But New Englanders were not far behind. Thomas Jefferson’s trade embargoes in 1807 and 1808 crippled New England merchants. With American-based vessels restricted to port and under the thumb of customs officials, the concept of trading products that never needed to enter American jurisdictions had immense appeal.
The Cabot family had launched the opium trade in the 18th century. Then in the next century, James and Thomas Perkins of Boston contacted their nephew John Cushing to urge him to investigate the business. Cushing. the Perkins’ representative in China, belonged to the first group of traders to set up a permanent post there.
Cushing would become a millionaire in his own right during his 30 years in China overseeing the interests of Perkins & Co. He would return to Boston as one of its wealthiest men and most eligible bachelors.
Other families that accumulated great wealth from the New England opium trade include the Cushings, Welds, Delanos and Forbes.
How much Perkins & Co. and the other New England China traders made from the trade in opium is unknown. They engaged in numerous lines of business, from loaning money to importing Chinese goods.
Jacques M. Downs, an historian of the opium trade, notes the market became more volatile as New England and other American merchants rushed into the opium business. Unlike the precise approach of the East India Company, these independents would rush to Turkey for opium and back to China as fast as possible. The margins were so high at some points, traders would buy opium exported to London and return to China with it to sell at a profit.
However, when too many shiploads of opium arrived in Chinese ports, the price collapsed. One trader noted in 1807 that the opium trade had “disappointed many this past season” because of oversupply.
England began getting better control over opium sales with the end of the War of 1812 and the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. British interests began monopolizing a greater share of Turkish opium. By 1862, after fighting two wars with China (called the Opium Wars), Britain and France forced China to open its markets and legalize the opium trade.
America’s appetite for opium, meanwhile, had grown rapidly. With trade embargoes lifted after the War of 1812, opium imports skyrocketed. In 1840 New Englanders imported 24,000 pounds of opium. That was enough to draw the attention of the federal government, which quickly taxed the stuff.
This story was updated in 2021.